Controversial but also hugely popular in Germany, where it aired as a TV miniseries, this dynamic story about five friends sucked into the bloody maw of the Second World War is in line with earlier efforts to fit big-screen ideas and scope into a small-screen format. Much like those Herman Wouk adaptation epics of decades past, Generation War uses carefully pigeonholed and typecast characters as chess pieces to be moved about the broad, years-spanning story to cover as many points of interest and historical drama as possible. This produces a somewhat mechanical narrative, something that the hardworking cast resists as best they can, continually hitting high strumming notes of melodrama amidst the exploding shells. Generation War nearly works in spite of its eager urge to cover as much ground and subject matter as possible. When the subjects at stake are Nazi Germany and the moral culpability of its citizenry in organized atrocities, there are bound to be a few gaps that even a four-and-a-half-hour film won’t be able to cover.
The story starts in 1941, with five lifelong friends meeting for a last night of drinking and dancing before two of their number go off to war. Wilhelm (Volker Bruch) is already a veteran infantry officer; he’s shipping off to the Eastern Front with his bookish younger brother Friedhelm (Tom Schilling) in tow. Charlotte (Miriam Stein) is volunteering to be a nurse. Greta (Katharina Schuttler) is working on her singing career and parsing the difficulties of dating Viktor (Ludwig Trepte), whose family’s shop was destroyed during Kristallnacht. It’s a setup that’s hard to swallow from the start, with all five of them happily dancing to swing records and shouting out “Shalom!” to Viktor. This though at least two of them (Charlotte and Wilhelm) appear to be true believers in Nazi orthodoxy, which wouldn’t countenance listening to “degenerate” music or keeping a Jewish friend, even if they had grown up with him.
Once viewers have swallowed that pill, the film’s first section churns swiftly into action with a pulsating lattice of crises, betrayals, and moral compromises. Wilhelm and Friedhelm are thrown into the meatgrinder of the Eastern Front, where any illusions about the honor of Hitler’s offensive are shattered in the blink of an eye. Charlotte works as a nurse close to the front. Back on the home front, where the noose is tightening, Greta and Viktor try to make do: Greta by getting close to a Gestapo officer so she can win favors, and Viktor by trying to convince his parents to leave the country before it’s too late (his patriotic father still believing that being a World War I veteran will matter more to the Nazis than his being Jewish). The tragic trajectory of their relationship would have more resonance were it less schematic: Greta is painted as little more than an opportunistic fame-seeker, while Viktor is defined almost solely by his ethnicity. At times, not including a Jewish character would have seemed less offensive.
Director Philip Kadelbach cross-cuts adeptly between the characters and the resulting buzz makes for an engrossing drama of life during wartime. He stages the many battle scenes with a vigorous grit that seems to be the result of many viewings of Saving Private Ryan. The broader sweep of conflict is left to newsreel footage in order to focus on the squad-level dangers and savageries the brothers suffer through. Although some scenes are cliché-riddled (the soldier who loses his mind and charges into the open, shootly madly), the script by Stefan Kolditz twists expectations in startling ways. The seemingly ideal Wehrmacht officer Wilhelm crumbles after being ordered into one war crime after another. Friedhelm, initially the standard-issue snarky intellectual, loses his soul and embraces the army’s civilian-slaughtering ways in a frighteningly deliberate manner. Hints are dropped throughout about a reckoning that is sure to come after the drumbeat of post-1943 defeats that takes up the film’s brutal second half.
Generation War was attacked for supposedly soft-pedaling Nazi atrocities on the Eastern Front and overly focusing on the depradations of Polish partisans and the Red Army. This critique would hold more water were the historical record any different: Many anti-Nazi partisans were fervently anti-Semitic and when the Soviets took German territory their record of butchery and rape is fully documented. No viewer with their eyes open could come away from this film thinking that the Nazi war machine was anything less than a mechanized Mongol horde.
What troubles more than anything about the film is more the cheap narrative trickery that becomes more prevalent in the second half. The story is continually twisted pretzel-like to allow one or more of the five friends to find themselves in the same physical space. Multiple times characters who were thought escaped or dead turn out to be neither. By the time the film makes it to the reunion that we all knew was coming since the opening scene, it’s difficult to know what to take seriously.